Friday, July 30, 2010

Out to Dry: How I Stopped Using Dryer Sheets

So an interesting thing happened in my laundry room yesterday. I'm sure this comes as no surprise -- the laundry room is rife with exciting and interesting things. Riiiight...

But really, I did notice something interesting yesterday. I'd run out of dryer sheets --  a couple weeks ago.  I hadn't even noticed until that moment when I saw the smiling Snuggle bear on the empty box.  Here's the best part: I hadn't noticed that we were out because our clothes haven't been staticky.

I think this all went down at first because I line-dry the majority of our laundry now.  It is impossible for clothes that are line-dried to be staticky.  However, I still use the dryer for underwear, socks, and towels. Yet, still no static!  How is this possible, you ask?  Good old white vinegar.

I got into the habit of adding vinegar to my wash when I started line-drying my clothes because I'd read that it's a natural fabric softener. Sure enough, the clothes on the line didn't feel like cardboard once they were dry.  So, with every load in the washing machine, I fill the fabric softener dispenser in the middle of the tub with vinegar.  Since it was a habit, I also did it with the dryer-bound laundry.  Not only does vinegar keep my laundry on the line soft, but it also keeps my dryer clothes static-free. My husband's undershirts are notoriously staticky, but vinegar did the trick and took care of even those! Don't worry: once the clothes are dry, you can't smell the vinegar at all. It's a laundry miracle!

Sure, dryer sheets don't cost that much, but they are an extra (and, according to my experience, now unnecessary) expense.  On top of that, dryer sheets are coated in chemicals that make your clothes feel soft and static free.  The smell of dryer sheets are just chemical concoctions that melt onto your clothes, cling to them, and then come in contact with your skin. Hence skin irritation for some, even allergies to fabric softeners for others. Really, it comes as no surprise when you read what's in them. So, why not go the chemical-free and cheap way?  (One note: don't mix vinegar with bleach, as the combination can send off toxic fumes.)

I hope I don't come off preachy about natural products, but I love using them, especially when they're simple household staples like vinegar. I'll be the first to admit that I think some of those dryer sheets/fabric softeners smell nice. Have you ever gone on a walk around the neighborhood and caught a whiff of that dryer sheet smell in the air from someone's vent?  I can't say I hate it. It's kind of nice.  That said, I think I've totally weaned myself off the fake fragrances and serendipitously saved some money in the process. Now that's a trade-off I can live with.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Denim Deconstructed: On Cut-off Shorts & Getting the Most Out of Our Clothes

I know I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: whenever I'm at church and one of the elderly women in Relief Society speaks up, I listen. Intently.  On one occasion, a sweet lady named Leone, who had just turned 90, said something that stuck with me. She said, "People these days don't wear out clothes. They wash them out!"  She chuckled a little, talked a little more about how the washer and dryer wear out the clothes more than the people do, and then added something to the effect that we have much, much more than we need these days and that we don't make do with what we have.

This simple declaration from her got me thinking about that. So I started line-drying my clothes since the heat of the dryer does take a toll on clothes.  Just line-drying alone can extend the life of your clothing. I also don't buy as much clothes for my son as I used to when he was a baby (granted, he isn't needing a new size every few months anymore).  So, that was the extent of my attempt to wear-out and not wash-out our clothes. 

Then a few weeks ago, I pulled my son's jeans out of the wash.

The marker he'd been drawing with hadn't come out of the pants.  They were covered with little marks on both legs.  And I noticed that they were starting to get really worn in the knees, too.  I wasn't too bothered by this since they were getting a little too short. However, my son is on the slim side and the expandable waistband still had at least a notch or two left. Then I remembered Leone's comment.  How could we make the most of these pants that still kind of fit? 

Cut-offs!  How could I forget cut-off jeans?  They were a staple of our childhood wardrobe!  Growing up as the only girl in a house full of boys, I can remember my brothers spending the summer in cut-offs because they were merciless on pants.  They always had torn knees in them, so Mom would cut them into shorts. Sometimes she would hem them, sometimes she would let them fray. To think that I was actually considering buying him denim shorts days before while at Old Navy!  So I grabbed my measuring tape and fabric scissors. I measured the inseam of another pair of shorts and then used that measurement to determine the length of the cut-offs.  Then, snip.  Instant shorts. I even saved the bottoms for my denim quilt that's still in the collection phase. 
(Update 6/2014: Since I wrote this post four years ago (!), I've made A LOT of cut-off shorts. As it was as I remembered with my brothers, boys' jeans don't last too long around my house. One thing I like to do is a quick stitch around the bottom of each leg. Nothing fancy at all -- just a quick run through the sewing machine, right above where I made the cut. I don't fold or hem or anything. This lets the shorts fray a little -- I like the classic frayed cut-off look -- but not too much and not all summer long.)

Now I realize that making cut-offs isn't such a novel or new idea.  I'm sure your moms did the same thing. The thing that struck me, though, is that I hadn't thought of it before. I'd forgotten just this one aspect of my mom's frugal repertoire and always bought shorts at the store. Duh. 

Ever since then, I've been even more conscious about the wear of our clothes. Another pair of my son's jeans, ones that are still the perfect length, started to wear in the knees.  They weren't ready for cut-offs yet, though. So, I got some iron-on denim patches from the store for a dollar. I ironed the patch on in the inside of the pants and now can't really notice the thinning fabric unless you look closely.  These jeans will last him through the fall now. My husband's pants always wear out first in the corners of the back pockets, from him pushing in and pulling out his wallet. So I did the same thing for his jeans - a quick iron-on patch on the inside and it's fixed for a while.  Much better than forking over another $20-30 for another pair.  Like the cut-offs, I hadn't given denim patches much though either until lately.

In a way, cut-off shorts aren't just an article of clothing, but they're a sort of frame of mind, a way of looking at something and finding a way to repurpose it. The same goes for iron-on patches. They're more than just a quick fix. Mending clothes was a part of life, almost as much as doing laundry, generations ago. Remembering all of this is a sort of elevated consciousness, a way of making the things in our lives, even just a pair of jeans, not a just a disposable commodity. In my mind, this is one of the foundational principles to making frugality a practical reality in our lives.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review: One-Yard Wonders

I love this book, One-Yard Wonders, for a bunch of reasons.

One, if I spot some cute fabric and want to buy it on a whim, I know if I get a yard of it I'll have enough to make something in this book.  Two, since most of the projects only require a yard of fabric and a spool of coordinating thread (some projects require some extras like buttons, snaps, or bias tape), they don't cost much to make.  You could easily make most of these projects, if not all, for under $10. Three, the things in it are really cute yet practical. And I mean cute in a cool, modern way (not a fan of overly cutesy things). I could go on and on with all the reasons, really...

But one of the things I love most about this book is that it pushed me out of my comfort zone and got me to try some more challenging projects. Granted, nothing I've come across in this book has been very advanced. I mean, how advanced can you get with a yard of fabric?  But I have had to learn new techniques, terms, and methods.  And, because of this book, I've actually used a pattern.  Yowza! The first time I sewed with a pattern, I felt like I was a full-fledged seamstress.  This book has boosted my confidence level and pushed me to try new things.  I may even get brave and try making some of the clothes in it someday.

For Mother's Day, I made this gardening apron for my mom, complete with pockets and tool loops.  It took me a while and I was up late making it the night before Mother's Day, but it turned out great, especially for my first project out of the book.  In total, the present I gave my mom didn't cost very much, but it meant a lot because I'd put hours into making something unique for her.

Since then, I've made an art smock for my budding artist, the clothespin apron pictured above, a cover for my sewing machine, and two laptop covers (one for me and one for my mother-in-law for Mother's Day).  Right now, I'm in the process of making a couple growth charts (one for my house, one for Grandma's) and a new purse (the strap on mine broke at the grocery store. Nice.).  And there's a ton of other things I want to make in that book. It does have 101 projects in it, after all...

No matter your sewing skill level, this is a great book to have. It's very approachable, too. The directions are clear and well-written. I only started sewing in January, so using this book has been a great learning experience for me. There have been a few times where I had to reread the directions a few times and other times when I've had to use my seam ripper more than I'd like to admit, but I still finished all the projects fairly successfully. Since getting this book, I feel like a much more competent seamstress (dare I call myself that?).  And that feeling is worth the price of the book alone.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Since my brain has decided to take a vacation...

...I'm just going to post some links.  Hope that's okay. 

I just feel intellectually/emotionally/spiritually/physically sapped. It could be due, in part, to the sick little boy I live with right now.  He inherited his mother's awful tonsils.  Sorry, buddy.  Anyway, on to the links!

Canning 101: Home-Canned Tomatoes -- Simple Bites
My tomatoes had a brush with death this past weekend. While we were off camping last weekend, the sprinklers totally missed my tomato pots. Two full, 100 degree days without watering.  When I came home, I wanted to cry. I love my homegrown tomatoes that much.  I'm happy to say, though, that the tomatoes survived (though still not as lovely as I left them).  Anyway, I mention all this because I'm anxiously awaiting my tomato harvest and I'm going to can some of them whole like in this post.  Usually, I just make salsa with my tomatoes, but maybe I'll can some plain tomatoes, too. I'm always using store-bought cans of them, why not use the homegrown ones that are a bazillion times better?

Lemon Laundry Tip -- Make it Do
I've written before about skipping the stain spray and using things around the house to get stains out of laundry.  I thought I pretty much had my stain-fighting arsenal figured out. Then I saw this post about how to use lemon as a stain remover. Who knew?  Plus, she included a recipe with the post that sounds delicious. Defnitely will have to try it -- both the recipe and lemon stain-fighter.

Saving Naturally
This isn't a link to a specific post, but more of an introduction to one of the newest sites I've found.  Often, people think that it's impossible to live on a budget AND enjoy natural products. Granted, it does take a little creativity and cutting back in other areas, but it's totally possible. But I still sometimes felt like I was missing out on some of the savings I could have with coupons. Often, the coupons with the newspaper are for products I just don't buy for various reasons.  Saving Naturally is an answer to this problem. Not only does the author of this blog share some great frugal ideas, but also lots of links to coupons and online deals for many natural product brands. I signed up for her email newsletter -- that way, I get regular coupon updates right to my inbox. Sweet!

5 Essential Make-from-Scratch for Your Health and Budget -- Simple Mom
When I first saw the title of this post, I was pretty sure I probably made all of them. Nope. Just one. I felt ashamed.  Granted, I do make my own bread, which she wrote about before the list of five. The other thing I make from scratch is chicken stock - so easy and a must for any frugalista.  But the other four on Simple Mom's list -- yogurt, tortillas, salad dressing, and sourdough -- I'm sorry to say I don't make.  I love the Greek yogurt I buy at the health food store.  I love the uncooked tortillas I get at Costco. Salad dressing is easy to make, but I always cop out an buy the caesar dressing at the store. And I don't give sourdough much thought. However, this post brings up some good points and maybe I'll try the tortillas, salad dressing, and sourdough a try. I'm sticking with my Greek yogurt, though. This post is great because, more than anything, it made me think about things I love to make from scratch and why I do it.

Root Beer Float Cake -- Joy the Baker
If my little guy gets better in time for the neighborhood get-together, I think I might make this cake.  It's really, really good. Different, but really, really good.  Plus, doesn't it just sound perfect for summertime?

Now it's time for me to veg.  Wishing you a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

For the Love of All Things Frozen: Homemade Popsicles 101

There are few things that say summer like a cold and delicious popsicle.  I love them all.  Especially the ones that taste like root beer or fake bananas.  I always break the two sides apart and eat them separately. Awesome.

However, in my pursuit to only eat real food (due, in part, to Michael Pollan), I'm trying to switch from the the neon blue popsicles and the Otter Pops (much to my husband's chagrin) to homemade popsicles.  I'd say it's been a pretty smooth transition. Not only are they a tasty alternative to the the store-bought kind, but they're also cheap and ridiculously easy to make. Double whammy.

In my opinion, the key to making homemade popsicles a viable alternative to the store-bought kind is the right mold.  When I was a kid, I remember my mom tried to make homemade popsicles, but they were way too wide. No go. I've also seen people make popsicles out of Dixie cups or reused plastic yogurt cups, but that always seems like a hassle and you have to use new sticks every time. Plus, like my mom's aforementioned molds, I think they're too big around to comfortably eat (very important in my book). Especially for little kids' mouths. Wow, I'm starting to sound like some kind of popsicle connoisseur.

Last summer I bought some inexpensive molds at Target, but my son didn't like them and neither did I. The shape and size was just kind of weird. Then I saw the ones pictured above at Ikea and they're perfect. They're wide at the base and narrow at the top.  Much better than the brick-of-a-popsicle my other mold from Target made. Another thing that's cool about the Ikea molds are that they come individually and fit in a little rack. That way, you don't have to thaw out the entire mold (like my old one), or a section of it, to get a popsicle out. Plus, they don't take up much room in the freezer.  The cherry on top:  the Ikea molds only cost $1.99.  The molds pay for themselves after a batch or two of popsicles.  Cha-ching!

If you don't have an Ikea close by, there are lots of other molds you can buy online.  One site I found featured a few cool molds - they do cost a little more than the Ikea ones, though. I think the Lekue ones look pretty cool (and awesome for little kids). Then there's this link that has the popsicle maker that makes them in seven minutes! I don't suggest buying it, but it looks cool. Plus, they have a few good recommendations about the Tovolo molds -- from what I've read, they seem to be the the most popular brand. I still stand by the cheaper Ikea ones, though.

Wow, I really discussed molds more than I planned on. Oh well. On to the ingredients!

The awesome thing about homemade popsicles is that you can fill them with whatever your family likes. One reason they're economical is because you're getting exactly what you want. Ever get boxes or bags of popsicles and have a few that last extra long and get coated with freezer burn frost because no one likes one particular flavor? I know we have. They're also great for the frugal family because you're likely to already have the ingredients on hand. No special trip to the store necessary.

At our house, we've filled our molds with limeade and lemonade (regular and raspberry lemonade. We looove the Simply Lemonade/Limeade brand). This is a really refreshing option, almost like a drawn-out glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. Ahhhhh.  One thing that my son loves are chocolate popsicles. Being the sneaky mom I am, I made them out of chocolate almond milk and he gobbles them up.  Healthy and delicious!  Today, I'm mixing up a recipe I got from Family Fun (wow, two mentions of that magazine two days in a row) for coconut-pineapple popsicles. You can put whatever you want in them: fruit juice, yogurt, milk, smoothies, whatever! I even read on one site about making popsicles out of tea; I'm already contemplating how awesome my favorite herbal tea (Tazo Passion)would be as a popsicle.  The options are endless! And in lots of cases, they're even better than the ones at the store.

While you have popsicles on the brain (and possibly a craving for one like I do right now), check out these two things I read.  One is from Orangette, where she not only writes about the nostalgia behind the homemade popsicles, but also shares a recipe for raspberry yogurt popsicles that I have to try.  The other is from the Here you can learn about the history of the popsicle (did you know an eleven-year-old invented it?), along with some suggestions. I'm definitely going to try the watermelon one. The frozen pickle juice one? Not so much.

Do you make homemade popsicles? Did you have them while you were growing up? What do you put in your popsicle molds?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Random Reuse: The Camping Handwashing Station

This past weekend, my family went camping. Always an adventure. And I'm totally cool with getting grubby in the woods. Well, except when there's public outhouses involved, then handwashing is a must.  Enter my latest reuse: the camping handwashing station!

I can't take the credit for this idea -- I got it from the June/July 2010 issue of Family Fun.  All you need to make this is a gallon-size jug (I used an empty vinegar one), a couple golf tees, and a bungee cord or two.  Simply poke two holes in the bottom half of the jug. The magazine suggested using a nail to make the holes; my husband just poked it really hard with the golf tees.  One you've made the holes and have used the golf tees to plug it up, fill with water and hang it with a bungee cord from the nearest tree, along with some soap.

This costs almost nothing to make -- I only had to buy a bag of golf tees (the smallest bag I could get had 500 tees in it, but it still only cost a couple bucks). There are no golfers in my house. I've got 498 tees. If you need a couple, let me know. I'll slip some in an envelope and send them your way!

But here's what's so great about this station:  when you hang the water-filled jug in a sunny location, you get warm water!  It almost feels like a luxury to have warm water when you're camping. We used this little washing station a bunch -- to wash our hands after using the stinky outhouses, before we ate, and even for brushing teeth. It was awesome. I don't think we'll ever go camping again without our washing station tied to the nearest tree.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Random Reuse & Some Lovely Links

Oh good. You're back. I was a little worried about how the last post would be received. Whew! Okay, moving on...

I don't know if I've said it enough, but I LOVE summer.  I love every season, really, but there's just something so carefree and joyful about summer.  We've been spending much of our days outside, working and playing in the yard, picking raspberries, and, of course, cooling off in the kiddie pool.

Which leads me to one of my many reuses for the plastic containers I can't recycle (our recycling program only accepts #1 and #2 plastic). To my surprise, our yogurt and sour cream containers have made for great pool entertainment! My little guy loves getting big and small containers full of water and then dumping them everywhere.   On one particular summer day, he and his cousin spent a good while pouring water through colanders and funnels. Who knew?  Forget buying a bunch of specific water toys - give the kids a few plastic containers and some other things from the kitchen and see what they come up with. I'm a big believer that the less toys (or makeshift toys, as seen here) do, the more kids have to use their imaginations.  Plus, these plastic containers are perfect for the inevitable water-fights that come with summer. Ahhhhh....don't you just love it?

Anyway, it's been a while since I posted some of the awesome links I've come across lately. Enjoy!

Your Garden May Need a Few Volunteers -  Make it Do
Who doesn't like free flowers?  Volunteers are a great to get them. Certain perennials will send off volunteer plants when they reseed. So, if you want to spread things around in your garden, you can easily transplant these little volunteers to different areas of your yard. Or, better yet, you can swap flower volunteers with neighbors and friends. A couple years ago, a woman in my neighborhood gave me some columbines; last year, I gave my mom some of my lambs' ear and sage. I'm happy to say that the columbines, lambs' ear, and sage are all doing well in their respective yards and flowerbeds. If you're not familiar with volunteers and transplanting them, this post on Make it Do is a great place to start. It's also a good reminder for seasoned gardeners.

Canning 101 -  Simple Bites
This is just the first post of a nine-post series on canning at Simple Bites.  I love canning -- I wrote about it for a couple weeks last year and plan on doing some more posts later this fall. I think canning is a great skill for anyone. I love it because I can control what (and what doesn't) go into my family's food. Plus, I think it's kind of fun. And even though I've been canning for about eight years, I'm learning lots of fun, new things from this series on Simple Bites. Definitely worth a look, whether you're a novice or canning pro.

Bow-Tie 'Lasagna' - Tasty Kitchen  
I don't know about you, but I just haven't been in the mood to spend much time in the kitchen. Don't get me wrong, I love to cook, but at the end of the day, I just don't want to be over a hot stove in a hot kitchen on a hot summer evening. Ick. As a result, I've been looking for quick and easy recipes that minimalize my dinner prep time. I just came across this recipe a couple days ago and it totally fits the bill. It looks delicious and it takes fifteen minutes to make. Bingo.

5 Simple, Natural Ant Control Remedies - Small Notebook
As much as I love summer, there is one aspect of the season I'm not totally thrilled with: bugs. And despite often your best efforts, they still make it into your house.  Never fear! You can deter and even kill them with things from your kitchen like black pepper, garlic cloves, and vinegar (*sigh* Oh, vinegar! Is there anything you can't do?). One note: don't use vinegar on plants outside -- it will kill them (great weed killer, though). I'm going to go sprinkle some pepper in one of my garden boxes right after I finish writing this post.

10 Ideas to Make Money Matter Less Simple Mom
A good reminder for everyone about prioritizing the things that are important in life. Reminds me of my favorite line from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:
"There's plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket-- There are only 5 of them in the whole world, and that's all there's ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?"
Hop in the pool. Eat a popsicle. Enjoy the sunshine.

Hoping your weekend is full of the simple summertime joys!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

TMI, Anyone? -- My Experience with a Menstrual Cup

We're all adults here, right?  I can't help but feel a little weird writing this post, but what the heck.  It deserves its own label, categorized under "Overshare" or "TMI" (too much information).  Okay, here goes...

Aunt Flo. The Curse.  That time of the month.  My husband calls it "girl week". Whatever you call it, we women have to deal with it.  So the question is, is there a way to approach girl week frugally?  And the more pressing question, have I taken this frugal thing too far?  Hard to say.

A few months ago, I read a post on the blog Simple Organic about ways to make your personal life a little more eco-friendly.  I don't consider myself some kind of crunchy granola girl, but I am environmentally minded, especially since it sometimes translates into saving money.  Anyway, I got to the section in the post about switching to "green feminine hygiene" products and they mentioned menstrual cups. I'd read about them before in the Tightwad Gazette and I remembered because it had seemed kind of weird.  In the Simple Organic post, it had links to various brands of menstrual cups and, curious being that I am, clicked on them for more information.

The most popular of the ones mentioned was the Diva Cup, so I read more about it. Menstrual cups have actually been around since the 1930s and the design hasn't really changed at all.  Basically, you insert it like a tampon and it catches everything instead of absorbing.  (I promise, I'm totally blushing as I'm writing this.) The other difference is that they're reusable because they're made of silicone.  You empty the cup, rinse it with hot water, and use it again.  Apparently, they last for a long time (though the company says to replace it annually; other sites say this isn't necessary, saying that they can last for up to ten years). And, apparently, you don't need to use pads or tampons ever again.  They're totally leak-proof and you can even wear it through the night, as there's no risk for toxic shock syndrome with the cups. 

I read all that and thought, "Well, that's fine and dandy, but isn't it uncomfortable/messy/gross/weird?" So I did what I do with just about everything: I checked the reviews for the Diva Cup on Amazon. There were like 200 different reviews and the average rating was 4.5 stars, with review titles that said, "Life-altering!" and "So useful, so comfortable -- it will change your life!" and "I forgot I was even on my period!"  And a lot of the reviews said something to the effect of "I was skeptical at first, but now I'm converted! I'll never go back!" 

So, I got brave and ordered one.

I'll admit, it's a little pricey. I bought mine off for about $23 + shipping (the price may vary).  But, even if you spend only $5 a month on pads and tampons, that's $60 a year.  In comparison, $23 is a bargain (like only spending $2 a month). And if it's true that you can use the same one for years, then the savings are even better. Plus, I know a lot of women stock up on pads and tampons as part of their emergency supplies and storage -- the menstrual cup would be an awesome solution for that.

I will spare you the details, but I did test it out.  I'll tell you now, it lived up to the hype. It took a little while to figure it out, how to make it comfortable (there are different ways to fold it before using it. I suggest the 7-fold. Google it.), but after the first day, I had it down.  And just like promised, it was leak-proof.  I even wore it at night.  That month, I only used one or two pads (just for back-up the first day).  All the reviewers were right, too -- I totally forgot about it. I never thought I'd say anything about that time of the month being great, but it kind of was.  It was almost like not even having a period.

I'm not going to go into the details on how to use it or some of the questions associated with it -- I'll refer you to the site. It's really helpful. You could also watch this video (you know, for a second opinion):

EcoStiletto's Rachel Breaks Down the Reusable Cup from EcoStiletto on Vimeo.

I'll just put this right out there: it's a little do I put this?...hands-on than the mainstream methods. It takes some getting used to at first, I'll admit. But, really, if you take a step back and look at the methods you use now, it's all kinda weird; you're just used to the norm. The only thing I didn't get about the Diva Cup was why it comes with a lapel pin of their logo.  On that, your guess is as good as mine.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Go-To Crock-Pot Recipe: Chili Chicken Tacos

I am fully aware that I haven't harnessed the power of the crock-pot.  Really, crock-pots are a great tool.  I even came across a blog where a woman cooked with her crock-pot exclusively for a full year.  They're great at combatting the dinnertime fatigue that can make people (like me -- this is a weakness of mine), just throw up their hands and say, "Let's just go get something somewhere."  I know from experience, dinnertime fatigue is a budget buster.  Plus, it's so easy.  You pop a few things in there, switch it on, and it practically makes dinner for you.  Amazing!

The previous paragraph probably makes me sound like a crock-pot aficionada. Definitely not. I got my crock-pot as a wedding present seven years ago, but I've only made a few recipes with it.  I'm not sure why this is.  I got a crock-pot cookbook with it but the majority recipes sounded unappetizing, plus they required a bunch of processed, pre-made things. Being the from-scratch kind of girl I am (that's just how I learned to cook), not to mention a natural foods enthusiast, I've always shied away from things like Velveeta, canned condensed soups, and salad dressing mixes.  That said, the things I have made in the crock-pot have been really good, but I still feel limited (and a tiny bit afraid) when it comes to my crock-pot. (Recipe submissions welcome.)

But even if I only use my crock-pot once in a while, it's worth having for this recipe. My one, go-to crock-pot recipe for Chili Chicken Tacos.

I got the recipe from Everyday Food magazine and I've used it over and over. On the days I make it, my husband walks through the door after work and the first thing he says is, "Are you making those tacos?!"  I especially love this recipe because it takes five minutes to make.

First the recipe, then the the how-to:

Chili Chicken Tacos (from Everyday Food)

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 6)
4 garlic cloves
1/2 cup prepared tomato salsa
1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1 Tbsp. chili powder
Coarse salt and ground pepper
8 hard corn taco shells
Cilantro, shredded cheese, lime wedges, and sour cream, for serving (optional. Well, the recipe says optional, I say "Highly recommended".)

The recipe calls for boneless, skinless chicken thighs, but I buy the bone-in, regular chicken thighs. The results are better, even if it's a little less healthy. The bones and skin keep the meat from drying out and they make it more flavorful. Once the chicken's cooked, I throw out the skin and bones anyway. No big deal. Plus, chicken thighs are much cheaper than chicken breast; getting bone-in chicken thighs are even less expensive. Since I buy chicken all-natural and sometimes organic, I'll take any savings I can get!

The only tricky ingredient in this recipe is the chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.  Maybe they're easy to find in your area, but I have the hardest time finding them in mine. If you have a hard time finding them, don't get discouraged. Someone will carry them.  Your search will be rewarded by the sheer deliciousness of the recipe.

Here's another thing about this ingredient: once you buy it, you only need a tiny bit of it. The recipe only calls for a tablespoon or two of chopped chiles. That's like one pepper.  It's like tomato paste - you only use a little bit and are left wondering what do you do with the rest of the can.  I freeze mine. Then I always have them at the ready when I want to make these (and other recipes with chipotle peppers, like this spicy mac 'n cheese recipe. Yum.). They keep for a long time in the freezer. That way, I don't have to make my special trip to the store I don't usually shop at to buy them very often. So even though the can I buy costs like $3-4 bucks, it goes a looooong way.

Chop up your chipotle chiles and slice up the garlic cloves. I always use a separate cutting board for these two ingredients. Don't really want my sugar cookies or pizza dough to have a hint of adobo sauce.

The peppers are part of what gives the recipe some kick, so if you like things spicy, go with the 2 Tbsp. of peppers; less if you want them more mild. The same goes for the amount of chili powder.  Adjust it to your family's tastes.

Put the chicken in the crock-pot, then add the salsa, sliced garlic, chopped peppers, chili powder, and salt and pepper.  Cook on high for four hours (or cook on low for 8 hours). 

While it's cooking, I highly suggest whipping up some pico de gallo and guacamole.  I learned how to make the perfect pico de gallo and guacamole from the Pioneer Woman.  In the summer there are some days when I just serve pico and guac with tortilla chips for dinner. We love it that much at our house - even the boy can't get enough guacamole!

Once the meat is cooked, shred it with a couple forks. The recipe says to moisten it with some of the cooking juices, but I'm telling you, I never have to because I cook with the bone and skin. So, if you've followed my slightly unhealthy lead, this is when you remove the bones and skin.  I love how slow-cooked meat just falls apart, don't you? Note: you could use this meat in so many different ways. It's amazing in tacos, but would also be great on nachos or even in enchiladas. It's quite versatile.

Here's an awesome tip I learned from somewhere (can't quite remember where) -- I use a muffin tin to assemble tacos. Just flip it over and stick the shells in there.  This helps you avoid breaking the shells as you fill them. Works like a charm!

Some cheese, pico de gallo, and some sour cream make these tacos muy delicioso. This is a perfect summertime dinner because you don't have to work in a hot kitchen. I just made them last night for dinner and I'm craving them as I type this.  Good thing I've got leftovers for lunch...

By the way, I'm totally serious about getting recipe submissions. I really want to use my crock-pot more often. If you have a great crock-pot recipe, send it my way!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Wonder of Plarn

Plarn.  Ever heard of it?  I hadn't either. Well, that is, until recently when I attended a class on it.  Amazing stuff, I tell you. The things people come up with...

Plarn is plastic yarn. It is one of the ultimate reuses -- maybe even THE ultimate reuse.  Basically, you cut up plastic bags into strips, tie them together, and you crochet with it.  There's something so postmodern about it, it almost makes me laugh (one of my favorite college professors always joked about our generation being "raging pomo's". She'd also laugh at the idea of plarn, I'm sure). But, really, it's awesome.  When all this plastic is crocheted or knitted together, the end result is something waterproof and super-durable, not to mention really nice-looking when it's done right. 

The woman who taught the class I attended brought in an amazing array of bags she has made with plarn. She uses them for shopping (talk about a reusable bag!), swimming (again, they're waterproof!), and as a purse (hers is really cute -- it's all multi-colored. You'd never guess it was made out of plastic bags)  I think a plarn bag would be great for trips to the beach (you lucky people who go to the beach...) because the sand would just fall through the holes.  I'm planning on using my plarn bags (work in process) for shopping.  Do a Google image search for plarn.  You'll see incredible things -- really cool shopping bags, purses, rugs, and even shoes! (the shoes seem a little extreme, I'll admit).

Plus, you'll be doing the environment a favor. Most estimates are that it will take 500 years for one plastic bag to biodegrade (some even go as high as 1000 years). In a year, about 500 billion plastic bags are used by consumers. By using plarn, you not only reuse the plastic bags and, in essence, recycle them, but you also save more from being used.  Imagine if everyone just cut back a little and used a reusable bag now and then -- the numbers would drop dramatically.  I'm no crazy environmentalist, but I'm all for using our resources wisely. Okay, stepping off the

And I'm not even mentioning one of the best things about plarn -- it's free! All you really have to buy to make anything out of plarn is a crochet hook or a set of knitting needles. Despite the fact that I take reuseable bags to the grocery store, I still have a bunch of plastic bags in the cabinet under my kitchen. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has an abundance of these plastic bags. 

So how do you make plarn?  Here are the steps to get the ball of plarn rolling...

Start with plastic bag and lay it flat, tucking the side folds.  (note: from what the instructor of the class told me, Target bags are a little more difficult to work with. She says they're "stickier". Just thought I'd mention it.)

Fold the bag in half lengthwise.

Fold again.

And again.

Next, cut off the handles and the bottom.

Cut the rest of the bag into 1 - 1 1/2 inch strips.  It doesn't have to be precise. Just eyeball it.

Unfold them. You should have a bunch of plastic rings.

Now, here's the part that's hard to explain. The next step is linking the rings together. You can just skip my attempt to explain this step and watch this YouTube video (this step is at the 6 minute mark). Don't worry - I won't take it personally if you do.

I used a yellow bag to help illustrate better.  Place one ring over the other.

Take one end of the yellow bag and insert it into the other end.

Pull the ends tightly until it forms a knot. Don't pull too tightly or it will tear. You want the knot to be small, though, so it doesn't show when you crochet or knit with the plarn.

Keep linking the rings together, rolling the linked plarn into a ball as you go.  To give you an idea of how many plastic bags you'll need, the instructor said she uses about fifty bags to make one of her plarn shopping bags.  That seems like a lot, I know, but once you get the hang of it, it goes by really quickly.  This is something to do when you're watching a movie or TV.  Or you could recruit your children (if they're old enough and willing) or spouse. 

Seeing as I'm just learning to crochet myself, I will make no attempt to teach you how to make the bags. It'd kind of feel like the blind leading the blind. From what the instructor said, it only takes a basic knowledge of crochet or knitting to make these.  I found out as I'm writing this that are a lot of videos on YouTube about plarn and how to use it.  Also, the woman who taught the class suggested a site, Crochet Pattern Central, as a great resource; you can find an extensive list of plarn projects at this link from that site.  The instructor said she basically taught herself how to make this bag by following the patterns on the site.

I'm a sucker for creative reuses, so this seems right up my alley.  I'll post a picture of my bag once it's finished. Ahhh, there's nothing like using a blog to keep you accountable and on task...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Great Homemade Play-dough Experiment: The Results

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned my "Great Homemade Play-dough Experiment" and that I would be testing out a variety of recipes to see which one was the best.  I judged this on  few different criteria: 1) cost to make the dough; 2) texture; and 3) how long it lasts.  I used a few different test subjects, but my main tester was my 3 1/2-year-old son, our in-house play-dough expert and connoisseur.

So with my assistant at my side, we researched and found some recipes, tried a few of them, and then narrowed the recipes down to two. 

The Recipes

The first one we liked was my mom's (and probably your mom's, if she made homemade playdough) recipe, containing salt, flour, oil, cream of tartar, and food coloring. It's kind of the old stand-by recipe. Mixing this all up brought back memories - just the smell of the finished dough reminded me of all the batches of it my mom made when I was a kid. 

Homemade Play-dough #1
In a saucepan combine:
- 1 cup flour
- 1/2 cup salt
- 2 tsp. cream of tartar
Then add:
- 1 cup water
- food coloring
- 5-6 tsp. vegetable oil
Cook over medium heat and stir constantly until mixture forms into a ball. It will appear lumpy but keep stirring. After it forms a ball, turn out on counter and knead until cool. Store at room temperature in airtight container or bag.

The second recipe is one that I got from someone at church. She said it's the best play-dough -- which got me started on this whole experiment in the first place.  When I was buying the Kool-Aid for it, my husband was totally shocked -- "You're actually making Kool-Aid?!" (he sometimes grumbles about my natural food mantra).  He wasn't so excited when I told him it was just for play-dough.
Homemade Play-dough #2
1 cup water
1 pkg. Kool-Aid
1 Tbs. vegetable oil
1/4 cup of salt
1 cup of flour
-Boil water, oil, and Kool-Aid, then add your dry ingredients.  Knead until cool.
The Testing 

Once the two samples were made and kneaded, I handed them off to the boy.

In addition to my son's rigorous testing, I also asked a few adults what they liked better. This wasn't so helpful. I just got a few non-committal, "I don't know...the orange one?" They just didn't grasp the importance and vision of this experiment as I'd hoped.  Their loss, right?

The Results

I was feeling pretty torn between the two. At first, I thought the green dough would win because Max was playing with it the most. That soon changed and he played with the orange dough exclusively. So really, the whole testing step was kind of pointless. He liked both. Basically, it all comes down to my opinion.

I like homemade dough #1 (the green one) a lot because it has a good texture and consistency; it's sort of dry to the touch, similar to Play-Doh. And being the mushy sentimental person I am, I can't help but prefer my mom's recipe.  The downside of the green dough is the cream of tartar. I had it on hand, but not everyone does. It's not quite the kitchen staple. Plus, it does put the cost of making this recipe up a little bit. 

I like homemade dough #2 because it's really easy to make and it smells better. Granted, I mentioned the smell of the first one being sentimental, but that doesn't mean it smells good. The orange ball of dough smelled like oranges.  This may make it more tempting for little kids to take a bite (but, chances are, they won't take another. Yuck!).  This recipe is a little bit cheaper to make, especially since the one, special ingredient (as opposed to the cream of tartar in #1) packets of Kool-Aid only cost around five cents.  My only complaint: the Kool-Aid dough did feel a little stickier, whereas dough #1 felt more like the store-bought kind. 

But here's the biggest litmus test: which one lasts the longest? The dough #1 can about three months, six months if you are vigilant about keeping it in air-tight storage. The Kool-Aid dough's shelf-life is about the same.  However, the reason why I decided to try homemade dough was because we were going through way too much of the store-bought kind. My son forgot to put it away or he didn't put the lids on tight enough. After about a week of play, it was either a big, hard lump or a bunch of dry, crumbly pieces.  Homemade dough has a definite advantage in this respect.

Both doughs were kept out of their air-tight zipper bags for a good period of time.  The green dough held out for a little while, but the Kool-Aid dough was the champ.  For me, that was the deciding factor.  The winner:  homemade dough #2. It's so easy to make - you can whip up a rainbow of colors in no time.  And, the best part, it only costs pennies to make. So, really, in the end, you're the true winner.
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